Long Distance

by Joy K

This is a variation of the Little Britches Universe, modern day with Vin, JD and Ezra as children. This is the fourth story in this universe. The others can be found here.


Chris frowned at the silence on the other end of the phone.


"Oh, I'm sorry," said the female voice. "I must have misdialed. I thought I was dialing..."

Chris listened as she read off his phone number. "That is this number, Ma'am," he said.


She sounded frustrated.

"I'm trying to reach Ezra Standish," she said.

Suddenly it clicked. This must be Ezra's mother. "Mrs. Standish?" he asked.

"It's Wingo," she replied. "Is Ezra there?"

"Yes," said Chris. "Just a minute." He turned and threw a note pad at Buck to get his attention.

"What?" Buck asked, picking up the pad from the floor.

"Get Ezra. It's his mother."

Buck raised both eyebrows in surprise and then quickly moved to the boys' bedroom.


"Yes, Mr. Wilmington?" the boy answered, looking up from his book.

"Telephone," said Buck.

He watched the announcement sink in. Ezra frowned for a moment and then his face lit up. "Mother!" he said in a hushed voice as he scrambled off the bed and ran down the hall. Sam, Larabee's Labrador Retriever jumped up from the corner and followed after the boy he had decided was his.

JD and Vin left their toys and hurried after the pair before Buck could stop them, with Vin's Labrador, Dobie trailing behind.

Chris took a deep breath when he saw the hope and anticipation on Ezra's face. He had no doubt the boy loved his mother, even though he still questioned her love for her son.

He handed the phone to Ezra, taking a couple of steps away but keeping a close watch on the boy.


"Ezra, Darling!"

"Mother!" The eight-year-old smiled broadly. "I missed you so much."

"I'm sorry it's been so long, but I was traveling and phone rates in some countries are unbelievable. How are you?"

"I'm okay, but..."

"Who was the man who answered the phone?"

"That was Mr. Larabee. Mother, I..."

"Is he Rachel's boyfriend?"

Ezra gasped softly. Maude had unintentionally struck a tender spot. "No," he managed to say.

"Well, then who is he? A babysitter?"


"Rachel didn't get married, did she?"

"No, Mother. There was a..."

"Ezra, who is he?"


"Let me talk to Rachel."


Chris watched the tension building in the small boy. As the conversation progressed his smile had disappeared and frustration was growing. He could hear Mrs. Wingo quizzing Ezra in the background, but not giving him time to answer.

"Where is she?"

"Aunt Rachel's dead!" Ezra blurted out, tears running down his face.

Two little boys standing nearby heard every word. Vin's head dropped in shame and he covered his ears, trying too late to block out the ugly truth. It was his fault Aunt Rachel was dead. Tears trickled down the elfin face as he slumped to the floor beside the couch and wrapped himself into the smallest ball he could.

JD's mouth dropped open at Ezra's words and their blunt delivery. And then weeks of frustration, confusion and grief rolled themselves into anger.

"No! You take that back!" he yelled at Ezra. He ran over to the eight-year-old and began to strike him with tiny fists, hitting him over and over as he screamed, "Take it back! I hate you!"

Both dogs started barking adding to the confusion.

"JD!" Buck warned as he moved toward them. Chris moved toward the huddled seven-year-old hoping to keep him from going back into his silent withdrawal.

Ezra raised his arms in self-defense at the unexpected attack. He had not meant to hurt JD with his words. He was only trying to get his mother to listen. Overwhelmed by his own world of grief and confusion, he muttered, "I'm sorry," as the onslaught continued.

JD pummeled Ezra's arms as he fended him away from his body, his fist catching the older boy on his wrist hard enough to knock the phone out of his hand.

The cordless phone hit the floor and the case shattered.

Ezra was momentarily stunned, staring at the broken phone - and the lost connection with his mother. Anger and frustration welled up and boiled over. He turned to the five-year-old and shoved him away, yelling, "Look what you did!"

JD stumbled and fell, catching his chin on the corner of the coffee table. He landed on the floor, and lay stunned for a few moments.

Everything seemed to stop as everyone's focus turned to the five-year-old.

When the pain registered JD began to wail, jarring Buck into motion. Vin looked up from his self-imposed withdrawal, and Chris lifted him off the floor, sitting down on the couch with him. Hearing the commotion, Nathan came in from the kitchen and Josiah hurried in from the laundry room.

Ezra stood rooted to his spot, shocked at what he had done.

Buck scooped JD up off the floor and Nathan hurried over to take a look at the profusely bleeding chin. The five-year-old pushed Jackson's hand away when he touched his sore chin. Between sobs, his angry words hit their target. "I hate you!" he spat at Ezra.

Josiah put his hand on Ezra's shoulder to comfort him, but the boy shrugged it off and ran out of the room. Sam trotted after him. Watching them go, Josiah picked up the phone and pushed the battery pack back inside it and tried to put the cover on. It would take a little glue to repair.

The boys would take a lot more than glue.

Deciding to give Ezra a little time to sort things out, Josiah moved quietly over to Vin and Chris. "What happened?" he asked softly. Dobie thumped his tail and leaned against Chris's leg.

"Ezra's mother called," said Chris. "He was trying to tell her..."

Vin's hands covered his ears. Chris sighed softly and covered Vin's hands with his own. "She wouldn't let him get a word in edgewise and he finally just blurted it out."

Josiah didn't need to hear the words. It was obvious by the boys' reaction that it had been about JD's mother.

"JD got upset, was hitting Ezra. Knocked the phone out of his hand. Ezra shoved him back."

Josiah nodded. Three hurting boys had just been reminded of their losses.

"It's not so bad," said Nathan drawing Josiah's attention to JD. "It's just a small cut."

"Does it need stitches?" asked Buck.

Nathan looked at it again. "Maybe, maybe not," he said, "But it probably wouldn't hurt to get it checked out and make sure nothing's fractured."


"Yes, Little Bit?"

"My tongue hurts," JD whined.

"Let me see it," said Buck as JD stuck out his tongue. "Ouch," he added, "that probably does hurt." He could see the marks from where the five-year-old had bitten his tongue when he hit his chin.

Nathan checked his watch. "The clinic is open until ten o'clock. We can get him there before it closes. I'll drive."

"Thanks, Nate," said Buck, standing and carrying JD with him. The Four Corners Clinic was a much closer option than trying to drive to a hospital in the big city.

Josiah followed them out, grabbing a warm blanket and a towel from the dryer in the laundry room as they passed through to go out the back door. He helped Buck wrap JD in the blanket, and gave the boy the towel to catch any drips from his chin.

JD snuggled up to Buck as they settled in Nathan's vehicle.

Josiah went back inside as they left, heading back to check on Vin and Chris. He could see Larabee gently stroking the boy's hair and hear his soft reassurances that it wasn't Vin's fault and he had done all he could do.

Josiah nodded. Vin was in good hands. He looked at the hallway knowing there was one more child in a lot of pain. He let out a sigh and headed towards the boys' room.

+ + + + + +

Ezra didn't take time to reason out what was going on. He was hurt and scared and followed his fight or flight instinct. For the eight-year-old, flight was the natural response.

When Ezra ran out of the room, he didn't stop at his bedroom. He kept right on going out the back door, with Sam close on his heels. He ran blindly with no destination in mind, just a need to get away and find somewhere safe. It was still twilight when he left the house, but darkness came quickly as he ran through the back pasture and into the woods.

Over and over he saw JD's bloody chin, Vin curled up in a ball and he knew it was his fault. He could see the broken phone on the floor. The connection with his mother was gone and he didn't know how to find her.

He ran. He ran through the brush and the trees and the rocks. He ran up the hillside until his legs were too tired to carry him anymore and he tripped and fell, rolling several feet down the hill. He lay there in the dirt and rocks, tears of grief rolling down his cheeks.

Sam lay down next to his sobbing boy and leaned against him offering comfort the only way he knew.

+ + + + + +

"Chris?" said Josiah as he came back into the main room.

Larabee looked at him questioningly, not wanting to disturb Vin. The seven-year-old was just beginning to nod off.

"We have another problem," Josiah informed him. "Ezra's not in his room."

Chris cursed softly.

"I already checked the barn and the bunkhouse. He's not there," said Josiah.

Vin sat up realizing something was wrong. "Did Ezra run away?"

"He was upset," said Josiah.

"We all were," added Chris. He had to decide whether to try to find Ezra on their own or call in help to look for him. He had no idea where Ezra would run to, nor how far he could run. The only thing in their favor was that he hadn't had much of a head start.

"Josiah, can you stay here with Vin?" Chris asked. "I know the ranch better than you and it's going to be hard to find him in the dark."

"I want to help," said Vin. Yes, he was upset about Aunt Rachel, but he was more worried about losing his brother.

Chris looked at him seriously. Vin wouldn't be much help, but if he went with them, Josiah could search, too.

"All right," Chris said. "Put Dobie in your room, get your warm coat and your flashlight." It had been a hot day, but at this altitude the nights could get very cold. He hoped for Ezra's sake that tonight wasn't one of those nights.

Vin slid off his lap and hurried to the bedroom to get his flashlight. Josiah had given each of the boys a flashlight when they first came to the ranch to help ease their fears at night. He grabbed his light off the dresser and told Dobie to get on his doggy bed. He didn't like leaving his dog in the room, but he had to hurry. He ran to the front hallway to get the coat that Chris had purchased for him on their first shopping trip to Four Corners.

Chris put on his coat and grabbed his cell phone. He made quick calls to Tiny and Mrs. Potter, his closest neighbors asking them to keep an eye open for one of his boys. Grabbing his big flashlight out of the closet and handing Josiah a second, the three headed out the door to find Ezra.

"Josiah, take the truck and head down toward the highway," Chris ordered. "Vin and I will go through the trees to the road. He can't have gone that far." He tossed Josiah the keys.

Josiah nodded. It made sense. Ezra was a city boy and would head towards somewhere he felt comfortable. Unfortunately, he didn't take into consideration that the eight-year-old was running blind and had gone up the mountain, the opposite direction from where they were looking.

Chris put his fingers to his lips and let out a shrill whistle. "Sam!" he called. He waited a few moments before calling out a second time.

His faithful dog didn't respond, which meant he had probably followed Ezra.

Larabee's truck rumbled to life and Josiah put it in gear and slowly drove down the driveway, keeping an eye out for the eight-year-old.

Chris and Vin turned on their flashlights and moved into the trees between the house and the main road calling for Ezra.

+ + + + +

JD opened and closed his mouth, sliding his jaw from side to side trying to feel his chin. All he could feel was the tingling numbness from the pain injection.

"Hold still, Son," said Buck gently placing a hand on each side of JD's head as the boy sat on his lap.

The doctor smiled as he put a Band-Aid over JD's stitch in his chin. "There you go," he said. "It will be bruised and sore for a few days, but he'll be fine. You'll want to go with soft foods until his tongue doesn't bother him."

Buck nodded. "Ready to go home?" he asked.

"Yeah," said JD softly as he leaned against Buck's shoulder. All the adrenaline and anger had faded and he was feeling very tired. "I still hate Ezra," he mumbled.

"No, you don't," said Buck as they walked down the hallway to meet Nathan. "You might be hurt and angry by what he said, but you don't hate him."

JD sighed.

"And," Buck added, "You need to tell him your sorry when we get home."

JD pulled away from Buck's shoulder. "He pushed me!"

"You hit him."

"He said bad things."

"JD," Buck warned gently, "Ezra will have to apologize for the things he did wrong, too, but you need to say you're sorry for hitting him."

JD sighed again. "Okay, but I'm still mad."

"There you are," said Nathan. "How are you?"

"I got a stitches and a Band-Aid. And my chin feels all tickly."

Nathan admired the bandage. It was a simple plastic strip, but it was a badge of honor for a five-year-old.

"What do you say we head for home?" asked Nathan. He made eye contact with Buck.

"What's up?" said Buck cautiously.

"We need to get home," Nathan answered cryptically.

+ + + + + +

"Ezra!" Chris called into the darkness.

"Ezra!" Vin mimicked.

Chris watched the seven-year-old shine his light into the bushes. Vin might be shy and quiet, but when it was necessary, he could be loud.

"Chris?" called Tiny as he approached from the far side of the driveway.

"Tiny," Chris acknowledged.

"I checked along the road from my place to yours. Didn't find anything."

"Thanks," said Chris. "We really appreciate your help."

At that moment Josiah pulled the truck back into the driveway and stopped near the trio.

"Anything?" Chris asked.

Josiah shook his head. "I drove all the way down to the highway."

Chris sighed. "I think we're going to have to call in some help."

"I left a message for Nathan," said Josiah. "He called back a few minutes ago and said they're on the way home. That'll give us two more."

Larabee nodded. "Probably should call the office and get the department involved." He was reluctant to call in the extra resources. It would be difficult to find anyone in the dark and the deputies had already been stretched to the limit with the flood. He didn't want to tax the men any further if Ezra was just hiding somewhere and would walk back in a few minutes. But he couldn't take that chance. He didn't know Ezra well enough to know what he would do.

"I'll call," said Josiah, "and I'll go up and check through the house and barn again."

"Good," Chris said, wiping his forehead with the back of his sleeve. "We'll keep heading west through the trees."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah had just finished searching the house for the second time when the phone rang.

"North Pass Ranch," he answered.

"Mr. Larabee?" said a lovely female voice.

"No, I'm sorry, he's not available at the moment. This is Josiah Sanchez. How can I help you?"

"I'd like to speak to my son. We were cut off somehow and getting a connection from here takes forever."

"I'm sorry, Ma'am," said Josiah, "He can't come to the phone right now."

"Why not?" The voice was still sweet, but becoming more insistent.

"Well, when he told you about Rachel Dunne, we had a bit of a melt down," Josiah explained. He realized that this was probably Ezra's mother, but he didn't want to scare her and say that her son was missing, when in reality he was probably hiding.

"It's true, then?" she asked. "Rachel is really... dead?"

"I'm sorry, Ma'am, but it is true."

"It's Wingo," she said absently.

"Excuse me?" said Josiah. He could hear her blowing her nose into a handkerchief in the background.

"Mrs. Wingo or Maude, please," she said, "Not ma'am. How? How did it happen?"

"The flood took her," Josiah said gently.

"Flood! What flood?" Maude asked anxiously.

"We had a very wet Spring. The river water was too high and the dam was too old. It gave way about a month ago. Over half of the city was flooded."

"I... I didn't know," she said regretfully. "I was traveling... out of contact... Is Ezra all right?"

"He wasn't injured," Josiah said. "Frightened, but not hurt."

"And Vin? JD? Oh the poor boy must be missing her terribly."

"They're physically fine, too," said Josiah. "They're all hurting. They all miss her."

"Rachel was a sweet girl," said Maude.

"From what the boys tell us, she was very special," Josiah agreed.

"She was a darlin' to take my boy in. He just loves her to death."

"He misses you, too," Josiah said. "It's good that you called."

"When do you think I could speak to him?" she asked. "He must be devastated."

"Could you call again tomorrow evening, Mrs. Wingo?" he asked, hoping that Ezra would be found and the household would be calmer by then.

"Certainly, Mr. Sanchez."

"Josiah, Ma'am," he corrected.

"Maude," she replied. "Would seven o'clock your time be suitable?"

"That would be perfect," said Josiah. "We'll look forward to your call."

"Thank you," she said. "I'll be in touch."

As the conversation ended Josiah felt the need to re-evaluate what he thought about Maude Standish Wingo. Maybe she really did love her son. She seemed genuinely concerned for all three of the boys, and that didn't fit with someone who would abandon her child.

+ + + + + +

Sam whined softly, nudging the silent boy with his nose. Ezra shifted slightly but didn't rouse. The flood of emotions, the physical effort of his run and the fall, combined with the end of his adrenaline rush had taken their toll. The eight-year-old's exhaustion had taken over and he slept despite the aches and scrapes and bruises.

He was oblivious to the search going on below. He was unaware that Chris, Buck, Nathan and Josiah had searched until after midnight, only calling a temporary halt to the search when Buck stepped in a hole and twisted his ankle. As much as they wanted to keep looking, it just wasn't safe.

+ + + + + + +

Buck rested on the couch with his foot elevated. They'd finally gotten the boys to sleep about a half hour ago, but both men knew there wouldn't be much sleeping for any of them. Buck watched his best friend standing stiffly by the window staring out into the darkness. He knew the torment Chris was feeling, the fear that something had happened to Ezra, anger that he could do nothing about it until dawn, and the feeling that he had somehow failed the boy.

"We'll find him," Buck said softly.

Chris closed his eyes, letting his forehead rest against the window.

Hearing a cry from the boys' room, Buck struggled to get up.

"Stay," said Chris. "I'll check on them."

The blonde moved quickly towards the hall, hoping he could comfort at least two of the boys tonight.

Buck sighed in frustration and lay back on the pillow. Dawn couldn't come soon enough. And no matter what Nathan said, Buck Wilmington was going to help search.

+ + + + + +

Ezra woke sometime in the middle of the night. It was a cloudy and dark and he was cold.

And scared.

And he hurt all over.

He snuggled a little closer to Sam, craving the warmth and comfort the dog offered. He was so glad that the Labrador had followed him. He felt a little bit safer and wasn't quite as cold as he would have been alone.

Ezra used all the resources his mother had ingrained in him, doing his best not to cry. It didn't matter that there was no one around to see him; he still wanted to please her. He shivered and huddled a little closer to Sam. It was really dumb to run off without his new coat - or a flashlight. Okay, it was dumb to run off at all, but it was too late to change that. And it wasn't like he planned on running away. He was angry and hurt and scared that he had seriously hurt JD.

How could he have shoved him down? JD was just a little kid and he was almost nine. He was supposed to protect his little brother.

And he'd upset Vin, too. He didn't want to tell anyone, but it had really scared him after the flood when Vin wouldn't talk and wouldn't eat. He was afraid Vin was going to die and he couldn't do anything to help him. And seeing Vin all curled up beside the couch tonight made him afraid that Vin would do it again and he really might die this time.

At least now they had Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington. Despite what Mother said, they were nice. He knew they were policemen, but they weren't trying to arrest him and they weren't like that awful detective who'd helped Mr. Wingo blackmail his mother. And they certainly weren't like the agents who'd bothered him at the hospital when he had pneumonia or badgered him after he got out until Aunt Rachel had threatened to press charges against them.

They wanted him to tell them where his mother was. How could he? He didn't know then where she was and he didn't know now. Her last letter was from somewhere in Switzerland, but she traveled a lot and probably wasn't there anymore - even if he could find the address that had floated away in the flood.

And now she was probably mad at him because she'd called and he'd hung up on her, even though he didn't really hang up on her, JD did.

Ezra sniffed and wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. Nope. He was not going to cry again.

Would his mother ever call back? How would he even know if she did? He was somewhere on a mountain in the middle of the forest and didn't know how to get back to the ranch.

Realizing that the house was somewhere down hill, he slowly struggled to his feet. His body felt all stiff and achy. Taking a couple of steps, he lost his balance when his leg wouldn't hold him and he tumbled down the rocky slope another ten feet.

Sam whined and picked his way carefully down to Ezra's new position. The eight-year-old couldn't see what new damage he'd done, but his knee felt wet again and he figured that wasn't good.

Okay, so even if he knew how to get back to the ranch, his legs weren't going to carry him. Maybe he should just stay put. They said that on some TV show he'd watched once. If you get lost, just stay where you are.

But what if they couldn't find him? What if they didn't even look for him? NO! They would look. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington would look for him. And probably Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez, too.

He was going to be in big trouble. Everyone was probably mad at him. He was making them go through an awful lot of trouble. Would Mr. Larabee even want him back?

JD's angry words resounded in his mind. "I hate you!"

Vin's accusing glare had been just as piercing.

They wouldn't want him back.

"I'm not going to cry!" He shouted the words out angrily.

Sam whined and leaned against him. Ezra wrapped both arms around the dog and snuggled into his warmth as tears crept down his face.

+ + + + + +

Before sunrise, twenty-one men stood around Larabee's truck preparing for a grid search. The entire Four Corners Sheriff's Department was there along with several neighbors and search and rescue volunteers.

Nettie Wells manned the house. She had asked Vin and JD to help her giving both of them very important jobs filling thermoses and packing lunches. She could tell that Vin could see through her diversion, but to his credit, the seven-year-old didn't make a fuss. He seemed to understand that the men needed to be focused on finding Ezra and not worried about JD or him getting under foot.

She looked over at Buck Wilmington. He, too, was relegated to making sandwiches. His ankle was still swollen and Nathan had insisted that he stay off it until they could get it x-rayed. Buck was not happy with Jackson's edict, but he conceded knowing he was distracting from finding Ezra. He knew would slow them down. Nettie could see that his ankle was hurting a lot more than he let on.

"Ready?" asked Nettie.

"Yes," said JD picking up a basket full of sack lunches.

Vin wrapped his arm around as many thermoses as he could carry while Nettie picked up a box with the rest. Buck hobbled over and opened the door for them as they carried their items out to the search team.

Buck watched from the porch as the boys walked through the group offering the drinks and sandwiches. Each man accepted the items prepared for him as Larabee gave out the assignments.

"Mr. Chris?" Vin asked softly offering him the last thermos of coffee.

"Thanks, Vin," he said as he rechecked the map, not realizing the boy wanted to tell him something.

"Mr. Chris?"

Chris looked at the seven-year-old. "What is it, son?"

"Maybe Ezra didn't go that way," he said pointing towards the road. "Maybe he went up there to one of the places you showed us."

Chris looked up the mountainside considering Vin's suggestion. "Where would you go?" he asked softly.

"I'd try to get up high so I could see," Vin answered honestly.

Larabee nodded. "Josiah and I are going to search that sector."

Vin smiled briefly, pleased to be of help to the hunt.

+ + + + + + +

His tummy growled. He was hungry and thirsty and for as cold as it had been last night, now it was getting really hot.

"I'm sorry, Sam," Ezra apologized to the dog. "I bet you're hungry."

Ezra grimaced when the dog licked his face in response to the attention. He tried futilely to wipe away the sloppy wetness. He looked at his dirt-smudged hands and then examined his shirt and pants. He was filthy. Ezra frowned as he fingered the hole in the knee of his new jeans, the jeans Mr. Larabee had purchased for him at Jack's Country Store. He scrunched up his nose looking at the ugly gash on his leg. It hurt, but for some reason it didn't bother him as much as the hole in the jeans Mr. Larabee had purchased.

Would Mr. Larabee think he was being careless and didn't appreciate the gift? Would he be angry that he had hurt himself?

Why did it matter so much what Mr. Larabee thought?

He sighed and looked up at the sun in the sky. It had to be after lunchtime. The sun was past the mid point. Maybe they weren't coming. Maybe he should try to walk back to the house. He tentatively bent his knee, crying out with the pain the movement brought.

So that wouldn't work. He'd just have to wait. And no matter what anyone else said, he wasn't lost. The ranch house was right down there... through the trees... somewhere.

Ezra looked around. All around him was evidence of some kind of a rockslide. Even the rocks beneath him shifted if he moved around too much. He'd crawled down a few feet lower and quickly retreated from that spot, frightened by the sheer drop off. He shuddered at what might have been if he'd fallen just a few feet more.

He hoped that someone would be able to see him. There were trees all around keeping him from seeing very far. What if they couldn't see him either?

And it was getting hot out here in the sun. He wanted to scoot over into the shade by the trees, but he slid every time he moved.

Sam shifted and more rocks slipped down the sharp slope. "No, Sam!" Ezra called frantically. He didn't want the dog hurt on his account. "Go home, Sam!" he ordered. "Go home!" Sam just whined and lay down again. He wasn't going anywhere without his boy.

Ezra sighed in fear and frustration. He just wanted to go home.

+ + + + + + +

Chris growled in frustration. It was almost three in the afternoon and there was no sign of the boy. He and Josiah had split up in an attempt to cover more ground and find the missing eight-year-old.

"Ezra!" he called for what seemed to be the millionth time, his voice cracking from the abuse.

He heard his call faintly echoed by Josiah's a few hundred yards away. Then his heart skipped a beat as he heard another sound. He waited in silence hoping for it to repeat.

After a full minute with no repeat of the sound, he yelled again, and then waited. There it was. He quickly keyed his radio, "Josiah, I hear something. Can you hear it?"

The radio chatter of the other searchers ceased.

"I didn't hear anything," Josiah reported.

"Hold on. Listen after I call." Larabee yelled again for Ezra.

This time both men could hear the faint response and a dog barking.

"Atta boy, Sam," Larabee said softly.

"I hear him," Josiah reported.

"Sounds like he's up the ridge a ways," said Chris. "Call in the rest of the team and get Nathan over here. We may need him."

+ + + + + + +

"Quiet, Sam!" Ezra ordered, straining to hear the sound again. He thought someone was calling his name but it was so far away he couldn't tell for sure.

Listening intently over the dog's panting, he heard it again. Someone was calling his name.

"I'm here!" he yelled as loud as he could. Then he listened intently again for the sound, unaware that his rescuers were listening for him to call again.

"Ezra!" The voice was so faint he wasn't sure who it was.

"Here! I'm here!" he yelled. Sam added his voice to the call, barking loudly.

And so it went as the voice drew slowly closer. The voice would call. Ezra and Sam would answer. Ezra's heart beat faster and faster as he realized help was coming.

"Ezra!" The voice was hoarse and strained, but it was Chris. He had come.

"Mr. Larabee! I'm up here!" Ezra yelled.

"Where?" called Chris. "Yell again!"

"I'm here."

Chris could hear him fairly clearly, but he was at the base of a small cliff face. Dread filled him as he realized Ezra was probably on top of the cliff.

"Ezra, stay still, but keep talking so I can find you."

"Okay. I'm up here Mr. Larabee. There's lots of rocks and trees around me. The rocks keep sliding."

Josiah stepped out of the tree line and walked quickly over to Chris. "Nathan's on his way. Where is he?"

"I think he's up there," Chris said with a nod to the cliff.

Josiah cursed softly. "How do we get up there? For that matter, how did he get up there?"

Chris shook his head and walked along the base of the cliff. "There has to be a trail."

It took several minutes of searching before he found an old deer trail, hardly more than a path through the brush.

"Keep talking to me, Ezra," he encouraged as he headed up the trail.

"Sam is very hungry," the boy reported, not knowing what else to say.

Josiah and Chris smiled. He sounded well enough. They climbed the narrow trail, brush and branches snagging their clothes as they went. Suddenly Sam started barking and they could see the dog to the left slightly up hill from them. Then they spotted Ezra, sitting quietly, huddled on some loose rocks.

"Ezra," Chris said, his voice breaking.

Ezra looked in their direction. "I'm here."

"We can see you," Chris answered.

"I can't see you." The voice was anxious, maybe fearful. "Where are you?"

Chris realized a rock outcropping between them was probably blocking Ezra's line of sight. "Hold on, we'll be there in a minute."

"Be careful. It's very slippery," said the eight-year-old. His stomach was doing flip-flops. Fear, relief, hunger, and worry about the hole in his jeans were doing battle for supremacy.

Chris emerged from behind the outcrop and stepped onto the loose rocks. They shifted and he reacted, keeping his balance.

"Chris, wait. We need safety equipment," cautioned Josiah.

"I'm not waiting for the team to get here!" Chris said angrily.

"All right," Josiah appeased. "Let's just get a rope around you, Okay?"

Chris nodded. He didn't want any delays, but it would be foolish to attempt to rescue Ezra from the slide area only to go over the edge with him. "Come on!" he said impatiently as Josiah rigged a safety line. "I'm coming, Ezra. Just stay still a little longer."

"Okay," Ezra said, his voice cracking with emotion.

It seemed like hours, but it was only two or three minutes before Chris was carefully picking his way across the loose rocks to Ezra. Stopping next to the boy, he could see the torn clothing and the dried blood on his leg. "Are you all right?" he asked softly.

Ezra nodded as Chris carefully picked him up. Nothing was said as they cautiously made their way out of the danger area. Sam followed behind, having a lot less trouble than Chris.

Reaching safety, Chris started to put Ezra down, but stopped when he felt the boy's arms cinch tighter around his neck. "It's all right," he said softly.

"I tore my jeans," Ezra said anxiously.

"It's all right," Chris soothed. "They're just jeans."

"But you paid for them."

"You're way more important than denim," Chris assured knowing that Ezra was dancing around the real issue.

"I didn't mean to."

Chris wasn't sure whether Ezra was talking about tearing his jeans or running away. Maybe it was both. Or maybe it was pushing JD.

"We were all upset," Chris said softly. "But everyone's going to be fine."

"Is JD all right?" Ezra asked.

"Yes," Chris said with a nod. "He's got a stitch in his chin and a Band-Aid, but he's just fine."

"I didn't mean to hurt him."

Chris shifted Ezra's weight, wrapping his arms a little tighter around the boy. "I know."

"I got lost." The admission was almost a whisper.

Chris nodded. Now he was getting to the real issues. "That's easy to do out here until you get to know the land. Can you promise me something Ezra?"

The eight-year-old nodded.

"Promise me you'll never run away again," said Chris squeezing Ezra.

"I'll try, Mr. Larabee."

It wasn't exactly the answer Chris was looking for, but it was honest.

"Why don't we sit down over here and take a good look at you?" He carried Ezra over to a flat rock where Josiah was waiting. Nathan would be here soon and they could take care of the gash on his leg and any other problems he might have.

+ + + + + +

Two hours later they were still in the exam rooms of Four Corners Clinic. Buck's ankle had earned him a trip to the clinic as well as Ezra. Nathan and Chris had accompanied the duo to town, while Josiah stayed at the ranch with Vin and JD. Nettie had insisted on staying as well and was determined to make them a good dinner.

Ezra was having a hard time staying awake. The doctor had given him some pain medicine but he didn't want to sleep. He wanted desperately to get back to the ranch. Mr. Sanchez had told him his mother was going to call back tonight and he was worried he wouldn't get back in time. Chris and Josiah had tried to reassure him that she would call back if he wasn't home, but the little boy who had missed his mother for so long wouldn't think of it. He had to be there for her call.

There was a flaw in his thinking, however. He didn't take into account that his body was too tired to cooperate.

"What time is it?" he asked for what felt like the thousandth time.

Chris patiently answered, "It's ten minutes to six."

"Can we go now?" The eight-year-old didn't even attempt to hide his anxiety.

"No, Ezra," said Chris. "The doctor still has to finish checking you over and stitching you up."

"Can't he hurry?" Ezra's exasperation was obvious.

Chris put his hand on Ezra's drawing the boy's full attention to himself. "Ezra, It's going to be fine. If we're going to be late, I'll call the house and tell Josiah to have your mother call back later, or get her number so we can call her when we get home."

"But it costs lots of money to call."

"Ezra, just relax. It will be fine."

He saw Ezra's eyes widen as the doctor and a nurse came back into the room with a tray and a big needle. He felt Ezra lean towards him in a subconscious attempt to get away.

The eight-year-old had been very brave. He'd endured the merciless scrubbing of the dirt-impacted wounds with only wincing and gasps. When they worked on the nasty gash above his knee Ezra couldn't help but cry out. It was too painful. The doctor had decided to give him a few minutes break to regroup and then they would numb up the area more before stitching him up.

"I'm okay now," Ezra said hopefully.

"Son," the doctor explained gently, "we have to finish cleaning the wound and close it. If we don't it could get infected and never heal."

"Ezra," Chris said softly, "hold on to my hand and squeeze as hard as you need to."

The eight-year-old looked up at Chris grateful that the man didn't lie to him and say it wouldn't hurt. He'd rather that it didn't hurt, but at least Mr. Larabee was telling the truth.

"Okay," Ezra said with a nod.

"Good man!" encouraged the Doctor as he set about the last bit of irrigation before numbing the wound area for the stitches.

Ezra closed his eyes. He was tired of trying to be brave. He was tired of hiding his tears, but his mother's voice rang in his mind: 'Ezra, darling, appearances are everything."

"What kind of ice cream do you like?"

The question was so absurd that Ezra had to open his eyes and look at Chris. He felt a small poke to his leg. That wasn't fair. Mr. Larabee had distracted him. He dug his fingers into Chris' hand in little boy retaliation.

Chris grinned.

"That was not fair," Ezra complained.

"Nope, but I really do want to know what kind of ice cream you like."


"You've got to be kidding," Chris said. "Come on. Give me the truth."

Ezra suddenly got solemn. He winced feeling some pressure on his knee.

"You okay?" Chris asked. "I didn't mean to upset you."

Ezra remained silent.

"You really like vanilla best?"

The eight-year-old nodded. "Aunt Rachel let us put whatever we want on it. I like fruit preserves and sprinkles with mine."

Chris cringed slightly at the thought of how sweet that mix would be. "What about JD and Vin?" he asked.

"Vin likes anything chocolate. The more chocolate the better," said Ezra. "JD likes cookie dough. Ouch!"

"Sorry," said the doctor. "Almost finished."

And he was. Chris had sufficiently distracted Ezra through the stitching process and now the doctor had bandaged the wound and was beginning the long process of fitting the knee brace.

"You'll need to keep this on for about a week, and you'll be using crutches. Janine will fit you with a pair and show you how to use them before you leave. We'll check your leg in a week and see how well it's healing." He manipulated the brace trying to get the best fit possible for the boy. "I'll give you a prescription for antibiotics and a mild pain reliever."

"What time is it?"

Chris almost sighed out loud. "It's six thirty."

"We have to go," Ezra said anxiously.

"He's waiting for a call from his mother. She's overseas," Chris explained to the doctor. "Ezra, I'll call Josiah in a few minutes. We'll get home as soon as we can, but we can't rush things. Your mother will call back."

"How's that feel?" asked the doctor.

"It's fine," Ezra answered too quickly. Chris shook his head and the doctor picked up on his cue.

He adjusted the brace again.

"It's fine!" Ezra said angrily, pushing at the doctor's hands.

"Ezra," Chris warned. "Even if we left right now, we won't be home by seven."

Tears of disappointment filled the eight-year-old's eyes. His hands dropped into his lap and his shoulders slumped. It was too late. His mother would call and he wouldn't be there.

Larabee cursed inwardly at the change in demeanor. Nothing he said seemed to make any difference for Ezra. It didn't matter that his mother would call back or perhaps they could call her, the boy was utterly disappointed that he would not be there when she called.

Chris thought about Ezra's preferred style of dress, his usually pristine manners, and his nearly perfect grammar. How much of it was really the eight-year-old's preference and how much of it was to please his mother, to gain her approval, maybe even her love? Things shouldn't be so complicated for a kid.

He gently rested his hand on Ezra's shoulder. "If you're okay for a minute, I'll go call Josiah, let him know we'll be late."

Ezra shrugged but didn't answer.

Chris patted the shoulder softly before leaving the room to call Josiah.

+ + + + + + +

It was a somber group that arrived at North Pass Ranch at five minutes after eight o'clock. Chris and Ezra had met up with Buck and Nathan in the orthopedics therapy room. Both Buck and Ezra were fitted for crutches and shown how to use them before they were allowed to leave.

Ezra had done everything he was told without a single word and very little enthusiasm. It was almost like they were watching Vin as he was four weeks ago, silent and withdrawn.

Buck wasn't much better. The normally jovial man was subdued as he contemplated several weeks in the "boot". His ankle had a hairline fracture, a crack really, but there was tendon damage and that would take a while to heal. He was not looking forward to desk duty and not being able to pull his weight around the ranch. Chris had his hands full with the three boys and their difficulties. He didn't need extra chores on top of that because Buck couldn't work.

Chris carried the exhausted eight-year-old into the house while Nathan carried the boy's crutches and made sure Buck didn't fall as he hobbled towards the porch.

"You're home!"

JD's happy greeting jarred Ezra awake. Chris could feel the boy's rapid heart beat as he tried to get his bearings and figure out what woke him. "It's okay," he said softly. "We're home."

"Mother!" Chris heard the hushed whisper as Ezra tried to wriggle free from his arms.

"Whoa," he said. "Let's just set you down here on the couch." He settled Ezra before turning to Josiah. "Has Mrs. Wingo called yet?"

"No," said Josiah with a shake of his head.

"She hasn't?" The hope in Ezra's voice was unmistakable.

"Buck!" JD squealed as the man hobbled into the room. "You gots crutches!"

"Yep, Little Bit," he replied, making his way to the recliner.

"Is your leg broken?" JD asked.

"Something like that," Buck replied figuring it was easier than explaining the tendon damage.

"Welcome home, gentlemen," said Nettie, entering from the kitchen. "Dinner is ready."

"Nettie, you didn't have to..."

"Yes, I did," she said, cutting Chris off. "After the day you've had none of you would have taken the time to make a healthy meal. Now wash up and we'll eat."

"We waited for you," said Vin as he walked up next to Chris and slipped his small hand into Chris's larger one. "We figured Ezra would be hungry."

"You two need to keep your legs elevated," said Nathan. "We'll bring your food in here for you."

"Sounds good to me," said Buck.

"I wanna eat with Buck," JD protested.

"Nettie worked hard to put dinner together for us," said Chris knowing that she had the table set for them.

"It was no bother," said Nettie, "and I think we should all eat together, so get out the TV trays."

+ + + + + + +

Dinner was noisy and exciting as the group celebrated being back together again. The repaired cordless phone sat on the couch next to Ezra so he could answer when the call came. IF the call came. It was past nine and the call was already two hours late.

Chris let the boys put on a video, but by the time it was half over all three of the boys and Buck were asleep. Josiah helped him put Vin and JD in bed while Nathan escorted Buck to his room and made sure he took his pain meds before going back to sleep.

As Chris came back to the living room to get Ezra, the phone rang. The boy jerked awake and fumbled with the phone.

"North Pass Ranch," he answered with a yawn.



Nothing could dim the smile that lit Ezra's face.

Josiah walked up behind Chris and squeezed his shoulder as they watched the boy talk animatedly with his mother. Before long he was doing more listening than talking. Eventually his eyes closed, but there was still a smile on his face.

Chris slowly walked over and took the phone from the lax hand.

"Mrs. Wingo?" he said. "This is Chris Larabee. I'm afraid Ezra's fallen asleep, but he's so happy you called."

They talked briefly and made plans for the next phone call, both to contact Ezra and to discuss his future living arrangements.

Ending the call, he put the phone on the coffee table, pulled the afghan off the back of the couch and covered Ezra. He tucked it around him and sat down in the recliner next to the sofa. Grabbing the remote he flipped the channel to an old movie and turned the sound on low. He'd be there when the boy woke and make sure he knew his mother would call again.

Josiah and Nathan silently waved goodnight from the hallway, heading for the bunkhouse. Nettie had gone home shortly after dinner. As the house grew quiet Sam meandered down the hall, his toenails clicking on the hardwood floor as he walked.

"Come here," Larabee said softly. He grinned as Sam leaned eagerly into the pats and scratches he offered. "You're a good dog," Chris added. "Thanks for taking care of him."

Sam stretched, turned three circles and lay down on the floor beside the couch. With a sigh the old dog rested his chin on his paws.

Chris smiled knowing he wasn't the only one watching over Ezra. Sam would wait all night if necessary. Ezra was his and he'd protect him.

"Get some rest, Sam," he said softly. "You deserve it."

The End

Next: Fallout

North Pass Ranch Index

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